Introduction to Gadamer

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* - Book: Gadamer. By Patricia A. Johnson. Wadsworth,



From the reading notes of Michel Bauwens, 2006

Gadamer, in his analysis of art and aesthetic consciousness in 'Truth and Method', shows that the experience of art invalidates the subject-object distance, i.e. the "inadequacy of a dualistic self-understanding that places people at an epistemological distance from the world in which they live. He develops a similar critique of historical consciousness, as creating an object in time: "the essential nature of the historical spirit consists not in the restoration of the past, but in the thoughtful mediation with contemporary life.

Gadamer also rehabilitates prejudice: such pre-understanding (f.e. of the student in the teacher or of the child in the parent) is essential to understanding, which is to be thought less as a subjective act, than as participating in an event of tradition.

Understanding is a historically effected event. To be historical means that knowledge of oneself can never be complete. We also speak from a situation and cannot go outside it to see ourselves from an objective distance. In the first two parts of Truth and Method, dealing with aesthetic and historical consciousness, Gadamer aims to overcome the alienation of Enlightenment thinking by overcoming the absolute subject-object divide by a relative one. We are never really separate from our objects and from the past, we are constantly re-mediating these meanings as part of a spatial and temporal community. But the medium of this ongoing dialogue is language, and it is this that he examines in the third part of the book.

His essential thesis is: language is NOT a tool, but the medium in which we live (like the air we breathe). Understanding, i.e. interpretation, is finding the 'right language' to appropriate (make into one's own), the object of meaning. In the context of this concept rehabilitation, he notes that the Greeks made a false start with Plato suggesting that Craetylus that language was indeed a tool, but finds hope in the Christian notion of the Incarnation (the world becoming flesh but remaining the word) and sees medieval innovations that go in the right direction. They saw language as having the structure of an event (rather than an image or sign).

It is language, the ability to name things, which creates the world, and our capacity to take distance from it. "Language enables the human relation to the world to be variable."

Gadamer distinguishes factualness, which is that my naming things we give hem significance and can talk about them; from scientific objectivity which is an attempt to eliminate subjectivity and to control 'objects'. The latter is only a derivative mode, "We cannot rise above this world.", says Gadamer. "Language has its true being only in dialogue". Language is community. Humans are communal parts of a continuing conversation.

Gadamer also stresses our finitude. "Totality is never an object, but rather a world-horizon which encloses us and within which we live our lives."

Hermeneutics is a practical philosophy, a praxis. It is concerned with human action. What it can do is discover what matters to humans by looking at their questions, and their presuppositions, playing a role of clarification (of our motivations), knowing that full dislosure is impossible.

Essentially, Gadamer is concerned with understanding finitude.